Sure, a cat can look at a king. But a person is not a cat, and a cop is not (exactly) a king, and a camera is not a look, so the epigram is non-operative when its application might threaten national security — for instance, when a citizen wants to photograph an ongoing traffic stop from the safety of her own property.
That's what Emily Good of Rochester, New York found out when she concluded, incorrectly, that she had any rights that the policeman is bound to respect. When she saw a traffic stop in front of her house, she stood on her lawn filming it. The cop — one Mario Masic — ordered her into her house. Good — who was on her own property, observing a public servant undertaking a public function — refused. She was arrested for her trouble. Carlos Miller — a photographer and tireless commenter on law enforcement's reflexive hostility to photographers and willful ignorance or defiance of their rights — has the story and the video. There's also an eyewitness account. The Rochester police department has started the process of framing a justification.
Law enforcement hostility to being photographed or recorded is nothing new. Radley Balko and Carlos Miller have done important work on the subject, and here at Popehat Patrick has talked about how the criminal justice system retaliates against citizens who use modern technology to document police misconduct.
What's different about the encounter between Officer Mario Masic and citizen Emily Good? In a way, nothing — it's a banal application of the general rule that police officers are either ignorant or contemptuous of citizen rights, and feel entitled to prevent citizens from recording their public functions. In another way, this incident is a rather pure distillation of the issue. Law enforcement arguments in favor of prohibiting photography usually involve an invocation of the thin blue line — the proposition that civilians simply cannot comprehend the barbarism that cops are protecting them from, and cannot understand the unique stresses and challenges and dangers of The Job. When Officer Mario Masic justified ordering Emily Good off of her own property, and ordering her to desist recording a public function in a public place, he did so on the basis that she made him feel threatened — a subjective "feeling" allegedly caused by an unarmed civilian on her own property doing nothing objectively threatening. Law enforcement wants citizens to accept such subjective feelings and hunches and suspicions uncritically, without dispute, as justifications to stop us and search us and detain us and order us to stop doing things we have the right to do. They assert that they can't protect us unless we respect and yield to these unilateral subjective feelings. But the core proposition of limited government power is that the state must have a specific, articulable, fact-based, and legally sufficient basis to impede citizens from exercising rights. If we cede that by yielding to claims that law enforcement officers have special abilities to feel danger, we let law enforcement order us about at will. Make no mistake that they will take that opportunity, particularly where recording them is concerned: perhaps the greatest threat to law enforcement's entrenched traditional privilege to abuse citizens and then lie about it is modern technology that produces irrefutable evidence of perjury and violations of rights. State officials do not give up privileges easily.
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